April 16, 2020 | By Barry Pittendrigh

Field Notes - Scaling Partners Towards Self Reliance and Sustainability in Legume Innovations Through a Systems Approach

The Chicago Council is pleased to launch a new blog series, “Breaking Ground,” to explore how food systems innovation and agricultural research and development can empower farmers and feed the world. A special subsection of our series, “Field Notes,” features voices from Feed the Future Innovation Labs and CGIAR centers.

Cowpeas at Dawanau market in Kano, Nigeria. Kano is Nigeria’s second largest city and Dawanau is West Africa’s largest grain market. Photo courtesy of Abba Aliyu. 

The capability of the human mind is overwhelming. Our ability to think, reason and act is unparalleled. However, it is when we effectively take the outcome of what we have created and move it into action that the real magic begins. United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Feed the Future program is the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative. The ultimate goal of this developing world research is to drive innovations into action to create sustainable resilient solutions to combat global hunger, poverty and malnutrition. USAID summarizes this with the phrase, “the journey to self-reliance”. This journey can be complex and multi-faceted. The implementation of agricultural innovations can often face roadblocks and without a complete route map the journey can end on the road to nowhere. 

USAID reports that over 800 million people across the world go to sleep hungry every night. The majority of these people live in developing countries who face explosive rates of population growth; unstable governments and conflict; inefficient food production, storage, distribution and market systems; as well as environmental threats which are quickly evolving with the increasing effects of climate change. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Legume Systems Research managed by Michigan State University (MSU) is one of 25 Innovation Labs funded by USAID. Labs draw on the expertise of top scientists from U.S. universities who partner with developing country research institutions to work on agricultural solutions that address the country’s food security challenges. Our lab focuses on grain legumes research in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal in West Africa and Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia in Southern Africa. 

Why legumes? Legumes are an excellent and affordable source of protein. They also possess a unique ability capture nitrogen from the air and convert it to plant usable nitrogen. This allows legumes to grow in poor soil conditions while also adding nitrogen back into the soil. Legumes are often used in intercropping, providing nitrogen benefits to its crop neighbor.  In addition, legumes require less water to grow than grains and vegetables. Cowpeas, Vigna unguiculate, are an important legume crop in Africa and are the focal crop of the Legume Systems Innovation Lab. The cowpea grain contains about 25 percent protein, 64 percent carbohydrates, and are low in fat. Both the grain and plant are harvested with the plant primarily used for fodder. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has published a complete overview of cowpea which can be found on their website

Agriculture in our target countries relies heavily on smallholder farmers who live in rural areas and are often isolated from technology, markets and resources. Projects are bringing new ways of legume farming to these smallholders, yet the introduction of a new technology or concept often exposes unanticipated vulnerabilities in the market system reducing or negating its impact. Through implementation of a systems approach, the Legume Systems Research Lab is managing a balanced portfolio of research projects focused on developing legume innovations that are scalable and ensure impact. 

The first step in this systems approach is in understanding how the system functions and at what entry point an innovation will affect the system most effectively. Second, building the capacity of the people and the institutions in the system is critical for the system to become self-reliant and resilient. Legume Systems Research Lab projects are diverse in research focus  and address both the development and placement of innovative technologies and the understanding of the system that will lead to their successful adoption. To ensure self-reliance, capacity development activities are strategically integrated into each research project.  

In a recent commissioned activity of the Legume Systems Innovation Lab, researchers from Michigan State University are studying the legume value chain in three cities in or near the West African Sahel – Kano and Ilorin in Nigeria, and Niamey in Niger. The study explores how these value chains function and what makes them resilient. They are documenting the buyer-supplier linkages step-by-step from farmers to consumers. Understanding these step-by-step actions can aid the lab in determining what impact the introduction of a new variety or the increased supply that a newly introduced growing process yields will have on the community. Understanding the system allows the lab to better introduce the right innovations at the right time and place in the system. The MSU researchers collaborated with Bayero University of Kano, University of Ilorin, and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Nigeria; and Universite Abdou Moumouni de Niamey in Niger sharing knowledge and building the capacity of researchers and enumerators in these countries.  

Field trial of new cowpea variety in Keur Bassirou Thiam village in Darou Mousty district, Senegal. Photo courtesy of Aliou Faye. 

In another project, researchers from Kanas State University (KSU) working with the Institut Senegalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA) and Agence Nationale de Conseil Agricole et Rural in Senegal are evaluating what factors motivate farmers to adopt new cowpea varieties and identify the socioeconomic barriers to adoption as well as gender and nutrition sensitivities of the new varieties. The research involves five new cowpea varieties tested at both research field centers and smallholder farmers in four villages in Senegal. Researchers and farmers will together collect and evaluate data and share the results. Understanding what the influencing factors drive farmer variety adoption allows the Legume Systems Innovation Lab to more effectively schedule and introduce new varieties into the system where they will be best received. 

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Legume Systems Research is currently in the process of awarding several new projects. These will explore innovations in legume insect pest management, new and enhanced cowpea breeding, alternative cropping systems, technology adoption in trade systems, nutritional approaches, and policy input effects on the system. In addition, we will identify gaps within our systems approach knowledge base and commission activities to provide us greater understanding for successful innovation scaling.  

All of our projects integrate knowledge building components for focus country researchers and key stakeholders to ensure that the innovations and systems are supported and ultimately furthered through self-reliance. The overall goals of our program are to increase sustainable and inclusive agricultural growth, strengthen the resilience of communities and agricultural and economic systems, and enhance the diets of men, women and children. Moving our focus countries into the driver seat and out of the need for outside assistance will be the ultimate success. Until then, we are excited about the new relationships, experiences and innovations this journey will take us on. 



Read our previous posts in the Breaking Ground series:

Field Notes - How to Strike the Most Effective Partnerships for Food Security

Field Notes - How do we Understand the Needs of the Rural Poor on a Global Scale? One Family Farm at a Time 

Field Notes - Shaping Future-Ready Food Systems, One Crop at a Time

Guest Commentary - Reduce Food Loss & Waste, Feed Millions

Guest Commentary - The Plague You’ve Never Heard About Could be as Destructive as COVID-19: How the Threat from Desert Locusts Shows the Need for Innovations in how Organizations Scale

Guest Commentary - Reducing Food Loss and Waste by Improving Smallholder Storage

Field Notes - Replacement of fisheries-derived fishmeal with yeast-derived proteins for sustainable aquaculture in Zambia

Field Notes - Systems thinking at work in South Asia's food production

Field Notes - Resilience+: How & Why Risk Management Innovations Reduce Poverty and Spur Agricultural Growth

Field Notes - The Beauty of the Bottom Up: Making Crop Improvement Work for National Programs

Field Notes - Brokering Research Crucial for Climate-Proofing Drylands

Field Notes - Food Safety Research is Foundational to Food Security

Field Notes - Reducing Post-Harvest Losses in Nigeria's Aquaculture Sector Contributes to Sustainable Development

Guest Commentary - The Critical Role of Women in Transforming the Food System

Guest Commentary - Adopting Conserving Agricultural Practices: A Farmer's Perspective

Guest Commentary - Investing in Innovation: Food, Agriculture and Forestry in Southeast Asia

Field Notes - To Meat or Not to Meat: Balancing Global Viewpoints in Battles over Food

Field Notes - Boosting Nutrition and Sustainability through Superfoods in Local Food Systems

Guest Commentary - Envisioning the Future of Food in Times of Change

Field Notes: Biocontrol of the Fall Armyworm - Long-term Resilience for Small-scalle Farmers


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet. 

| By Janet Fierro

Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.